In seeking to reconcile Britain with its imperial past, many historians have turned to assessing its ethnological exhibitions. The exhibition of foreign peoples during the Victorian period bolstered and reflected imperial sentiments. In proclaiming the dehumanization of performers into nothing more than objects of British fantasy and abhorrence, scholars offer both a reflection on the centrality of the imperial imaginary and a scathing critique of the violence Britain inflicted on performers. Common throughout this literature is the presentation of two binaries: the producer – product and the voyeur – voyeured. In both instances, the story centers on what Britons deliberately created and consumed. By extension, performers are relegated to simply representing the product of British visions. This narrative is a grave oversight. The literature’s overwhelming focus on British identity performance and colonial victimhood threatens to reproduce the very power structures which underlie imperialism. While performers were placed in impossible positions at home as well as abroad, this does not automatically invalidate their agency.
Drawing on Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes, this paper explores the power performers held in appropriating, debating, and rejecting British meanings and tools. Through an analysis of primary 1840s sources, this paper follows the accounts of two Indigenous troupes of Ojibwe and Báxoje performers. By successfully wielding British entertainment, newspapers, science, and the language of Christian charity, these performers pushed for the proper recognition of their own identities and staked a claim in characterizing the British Other. Rather than play into the retreating role imagined for them, the Ojibweg and Báxoje refused to disappear.
In centering the voices and agency of Indigenous performers, this paper challenges the dominant historiography on Victorian Britain and contributes to decolonizing the literature.